That man in the White House

Franklin D Roosevelt (or FDR) is the longest serving president in US history. His 12 years in office spanned two of the 20th Century’s greatest disasters – the Great Depression and the Second World War.

Roosevelt broke the mould. A bout of polio put him in a wheelchair, but he still bestrode the international stage like a colossus. Revered and reviled in equal measure, discover how Roosevelt defined what it is to be a 'modern' president.


Birth and childhood

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Franklin D Roosevelt pictured as a boy

Roosevelt pictured as a boy in about 1885.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born in Hyde Park, New York, on 30 January. His parents delayed naming him believing he wouldn't survive infancy.

His father, James, was a successful businessman and his mother, Sara, doted on the young FDR. An only child, he was first educated at Springwood, the large estate he called home, and then at Groton, an elite New England boarding school. Affluent and educated, Roosevelt could also boast a fifth cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, who became the 26th president of the US in 1901. His was not the rags to riches story idealised in the American dream.

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In the president's footsteps

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Theodore Roosevelt

FDR's fifth cousin, President Theodore Roosevelt, working at his desk.

Like his illustrious cousin Theodore before him, Roosevelt attended Harvard – the college of choice for many of America's East Coast moneyed elite.

Though an average student, Roosevelt threw himself into college life with enthusiasm. He helped found the Political Society and ran the student newspaper, the Harvard Crimson. The Yacht Club offered him still more extracurricular activity and Roosevelt retained a love of the sea throughout his life. After graduating with a BA in history in 1903, Roosevelt headed to law school at New York's Columbia University.

The Harvard Crimson: FDR's college years



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Franklin D. Roosevelt with future wife Eleanor Roosevelt

Franklin D Roosevelt and Eleanor not long before they married.

Roosevelt first met Eleanor in 1902. A distant cousin, she was President Theodore Roosevelt's niece.

Over the coming months they often saw each other at dances and parties. In November 1903 Roosevelt informed his mother that he and Eleanor were to marry. Opposed to the match, she persuaded him to keep news of the engagement quiet for a year and during that time introduced him to as many suitable brides as she could find. Nonetheless, Roosevelt stuck to his guns. On St Patrick's Day 1905 the two distant branches of the Roosevelt family were united in New York City. The couple had six children.

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Senator Roosevelt

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Franklin D Roosevelt (FDR) as Assistant Secretary to the Navy

Franklin D Roosevelt pictured at his desk after his appointment as assistant secretary of the navy.

After passing the Bar exam in 1907, Roosevelt worked for a prestigious New York City law firm. But he quickly tired of the profession.

In 1910 he entered politics. Roosevelt stood as a Democrat in the heavily Republican Dutchess County. He won. Re-elected two years later, he supported Woodrow Wilson's bid for the Presidency at the Democratic National Convention. As a reward for his support, Roosevelt was appointed assistant secretary of the navy where he worked with the admirals to prepare the country for war. When the US entered the war in 1917, Roosevelt gained a reputation as an able and energetic administrator.

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1920 election campaign poster with James Cox and Franklin D Roosevelt (FDR)

1920 campaign poster featuring Democrat presidential nominee James M Cox and Franklin D Roosevelt.

Roosevelt's skills had not gone unnoticed. In 1920 he was asked to stand for vice-president – the youngest man ever to run for that office.

But in the aftermath of the First World War, public opinion stood firmly against US involvement in the League of Nations, the brainchild of outgoing President Woodrow Wilson. Democrat support plummeted and as a result Republican candidate Warren Harding was swept into the White House on a wave of support for American isolationism. Roosevelt had been defeated, and worse was to follow.

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Franklin D Roosevelt's (FDR) wheelchair

Roosevelt disliked conventional wheelchairs, preferring to add wheels to normal chairs as above.

In summer Roosevelt's life changed forever. Sailing on his yacht in New Brunswick, he fell overboard.

A sudden feeling of weakness had robbed him of the strength to support himself. Doctors struggled to identify the cause as his symptoms grew worse. On 25 August he was diagnosed with polio. Then incurable, it could be a death sentence. Facing paralysis, he withdrew from public life to concentrate on his rehabilitation. Though he never regained the use of his legs, by winter Roosevelt had recovered enough strength to convincingly conceal his disability from much of America at large.

Witness: The discovery of a polio vaccine


Wall Street Crash

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See how Roosevelt won the Democrat nomination for the Presidency. Clip from Prelinger Archives/Getty Images (1945).

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Eleanor had kept her husband's reputation alive, speaking publicly across the state of New York.

In 1928 he was elected governor of New York, a triumphant return to political office. It was in New York the following year that America, and the world, was plunged into one of the greatest crises of the 20th Century. On 24 October 1929, the stock market crashed. Republican President Herbert Hoover was blamed. In contrast, Roosevelt’s policies to overcome the economic consequences that followed were lauded. After re-election as governor in 1930, he launched a bid for the presidency.

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In Hoover we trusted, now we are busted.

Sign on anti-Hoover campaigners' truck in Iowa, 1932



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See how Franklin D Roosevelt swept to the biggest landslide in US history. Clip from Prelinger Archives/Getty Images (1945).

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Economic depression gripped the United States as Roosevelt flew to Chicago to accept the Democrat nomination for president.

Unemployment soared, farmers lost their land and thousands of banks collapsed. Roosevelt's campaign for recovery and reform was based on policies to create jobs and growth. When the votes were counted, he claimed an overwhelming majority. At his inauguration in March 1933 he declared war on the Great Depression that was wreaking ruin on the country and sought to calm a panicked America. "This nation will endure as it has endured," he said. "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

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I assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack on our common problems.

Franklin D Roosevelt, 4 March 1933


The first 100 days

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Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Emergency Banking Bill

Roosevelt signs the Emergency Banking Bill with Secretary of the Treasury William Woodwin in March 1933.

Roosevelt had to act fast. The US was facing its greatest crisis since the Civil War. As banks continued to fail, panic set in.

He temporarily closed them down, preventing further withdrawals, and then ramped up government spending. In his 'first 100 days' he passed a remarkable 16 pieces of major legislation, launched public works programmes and gave direct assistance to the unemployed – by now over a quarter of the total industrial workforce.

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I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, on accepting the Democrat nomination for President in 1932


The New Deal

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Franklin D Roosevelt (FDR) signs the social security bill

Franklin D Roosevelt signs the Social Security Bill in 1935.

Roosevelt continued to roll out his 'New Deal' reforms. In 1935 he unveiled the outlines of a basic welfare state with the Social Security Act.

What's more, in the context of bitter, violent industrial conflicts, Roosevelt recognised the rights of trade unions and reined in employers. The federal government, which had played little part in the day-to-day affairs of ordinary citizens before 1933, was now a real presence in their lives. Conservative criticism was fierce. His opponents claimed he was inhibiting economic recovery and stirring up class conflict. Yet in 1936 he was again elected president, with an even greater majority.

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They are unanimous in their hate for me and I welcome their hatred.

Franklin D Roosevelt on the conservative opposition to his New Deal reforms, 1936


The arsenal of democracy

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How did Roosevelt persuade a reluctant Congress to make the US the "arsenal of democracy"? Clip from Prelinger Archives/Getty Images (1945).

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As Hitler marched through Europe, Roosevelt won an unprecedented third term as President, defeating Wendell Wilkie.

Roosevelt had been increasingly alarmed by Hitler's actions as the 1930s drew on. By 1939 he was concentrating predominantly on foreign affairs and New Deal reform legislation slowed. But Congress remained staunchly isolationist, determined America should not to be drawn into another bloody European war. Its position softened when France surrendered and, in 1941, Roosevelt signed the lend-lease bill bankrolling the Allies' war effort. The US became the "arsenal of democracy". War was coming.

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Pearl Harbour

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Discover how Pearl Harbor shocked the US and saw Roosevelt bring America into the Second World War. Clip from Prelinger Archives/Getty Images (1945).

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At lunchtime on 7 December 1941, Roosevelt was in his study with an adviser when Navy Secretary Frank Knox burst in. Japan had attacked Pearl Harbour.

More than 2,400 were killed. With deadly calm, Roosevelt set about making preparations for war. He spoke to Winston Churchill and consulted extensively with senior government and military officials. The following day he addressed the nation. "No matter how long it may take us," he said, "the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory." Four days later, Italy and Germany also declared war on the US. Roosevelt was convinced that Germany had to be defeated first.

Witness: Pearl Harbor

We are all in the same boat now.

Winston Churchill, speaking to Roosevelt by phone, 7 December 1941


Don't swap horses in midstream

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How Roosevelt was elected to a fourth term in office and planned for the future at Yalta. Clip from Prelinger Archives/Getty Images (1945).

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By the time Roosevelt was elected President for a record fourth time, the Allies were winning the war.

The Red Army was forcing the Germans back in the east and D-Day gave the Allies a foothold in France. With Churchill and Stalin, Roosevelt looked ahead to a post-war world. In 1945 the so-called 'Big Three' met at Yalta. Despite failing health, Roosevelt persuaded Stalin to join the fight against Japan, in return for territory in the Far East. He was less suspicious of Stalin than Churchill and was determined to bring the USSR into his proposed new world order – the United Nations.

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We are going to win this war and the peace that follows.

Franklin D Roosevelt, 1944


A nation mourns

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See how the US reacted to news of Roosevelt's death. Clip from Prelinger Archives/Getty Images (1945).

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The stresses of a life in politics eventually got the better of Roosevelt. He died on 12 April 1945 after suffering a massive stroke.

Just as he had concealed his disability, so Roosevelt hid the extent of his ill health. Since 1944 doctors were aware of serious concerns. This had made the selection of his vice-president even more important – Harry Truman was now president. Thousands lined the streets to pay their respects as Roosevelt’s coffin was borne to Washington and on to Hyde Park. He had led the US out of depression and to the brink of victory. Loved or loathed, he left an indelible stamp on America and the world.